Serbia Is Overrun I

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Serbia Is Overrun I

Serbian infantry positioned at Ada Ciganlija.

WWI Italian postcard represents Serbia fighting with Austria and Germany,
while Bulgaria tries to kill Serbia with a knife and Greece watches from the sideline

When the fourth invasion of Serbia began in October of 1915, individuals and groups within the Entente nations were still arguing and vacillating over what strategy, if any, to pursue in the Balkans. In general, the Easterners wanted to energetically support the Serbs, bring all the local neutrals into the War on their side, and break the isolation of Russia. Westerners would have discontinued the operations against the Ottoman Empire, rejected all annoying thoughts about helping the Serbs and concentrated all means on the Western Front as the best way to support Russia. As late as early October, when they were virtually certain of Bulgaria’s hostility, few leaders in France or Britain could agree on what sort of response to initiate in Southeast Europe, though they were more and more convinced that the Dardanelles Operation was not going to achieve its purpose. A furious Lloyd George prepared a memorandum for his colleagues and distributed it on October 12th. In it, he criticized the inaction of the Entente, writing that the failure “to save from destruction one little country after another that relied on their [four Great Powers] protection is one of the most pitiable spectacles of this War.” Kitchener, normally insensitive to an indirect slight as such, decided to replace Hamilton with Sir Charles Monro, the erstwhile commander of the Third Army in France. Hamilton was notified of his ‘imminent replacement’ on the 16th; some measure of his level of enthusiasm for his command may be evidenced by the fact that he immediately turned over his authority to Birdwood, and departed for Britain the very next day, eleven days before Monro would arrive on the scene.

By contrast, the Alliance Nations knew exactly what they needed to accomplish in the Balkans, and had allocated the forces necessary to achieve it. Austria-Hungary could not sustain a war on three fronts; at least one would have to be eliminated. Turkey needed to receive large amounts of war material to defend her four fronts; a direct railroad linkup was imperative. The rather elementary conclusion was to knock Serbia out of the War, to utterly defeat her and her weak sister Montenegro. By enlisting Bulgaria to the cause of furthering her self-interest, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion.

Surprisingly, the Serbs were still confident of their ability to defend themselves until they learned of Bulgaria’s hostility. After all, they had already rather handily defeated three enemy invasions during the prior year and optimistically believed that they could do so again. What they failed to take into account, however, was the fact that their Army of 1914 was a veteran force of the Balkan Wars, while the Austro-Hungarian Army had not been in battle since 1866. With a year of experience now under their belts, the Habsburg troops might reasonably be expected to perform much better in 1915 than they as green soldiers had done during the autumn of 1914.

As we have seen, the big guns had long been firing along the three rivers which delineated Serbia’s northern and western frontier. On October 5th, the bombardment intensified and included incendiary shells which promptly engulfed portions of Belgrade in a sea of flames. The Serbian side of the streams shook and heaved under the ceaseless staccato of explosions, the effects of which sounded like multiple drum-rolls from several kilometers distant. Gallwitz’s Eleventh Army used the cover of the avalanche of steel to bring up its boats, several of which were former yachts and pleasure-craft which had been lightly armored and fitted with artillery and machine guns. Masses of soldiers assembled at Smederovo and Ram on the Danube, and a subsidiary force planned to cross near the Iron Gate at the Romanian border. Kövess targeted Obrenovac near the mouth of the Kolubara on east to Belgrade, while leaving the forcing of the Drina to an independent Corps on his right. There would be no repeat of the 1914 campaigns.

To ensure success of the operation, the German High Command insisted on giving overall direction to one of its own, much to the annoyance of Hötzendorf, who felt that Serbia and the Balkans were very much within Austro-Hungarian spheres of influence. Selected for the assignment was August von Mackensen a veteran leader and hero of the Russian Campaign, who had recently been promoted to Field Marshal. He had worked with both Gallwitz and Kövess on the Eastern Front.

Using the thunderous barrage as cover, and assisted by the small fleet of river gunboats, German troops crossed the Danube at Smederovo and Dubravica, on both sides of the mouth of the Morava, the valley of which was the gateway to points south. Smaller-scale passages were also forced at Ram, Gradiste and Orsova to the east, that same day of October 7th. Bridging operations were much facilitated by the presence of large islands dividing the massive stream at the main crossing-points. The Austrians used similar topographic advantages to negotiate the waters before Belgrade, where they hopped both the Save and the larger river. Upstream Obrenovac was assaulted, as was Skela, Sabac and Lesnica on the Drina. Much smaller secondary units threatened the Serb left flank in the mountains around Visegrad, as well as the Montenegrin frontier.

Serbia’s Armies were ill-positioned to meet the new invasion, but Putnik was hardly to blame; Bulgaria’s attitude had forced him to deploy something like 40% of his strength in the east, leaving only First Army to cover the Drina and part of the Save, Third Army opposite the Germans, and the so-called ‘Belgrade Group’ to defend the gap between the two. It was not enough. Late on the 8th, Hungarian troops fought their way into the old forts of Belgrade, and the city was ordered evacuated. Of the French, British and Russian heavy artillery contingents sent to reinforce the defense, some were destroyed by bombardment, some were overrun and a few were withdrawn at the last moment. All night the battle for Belgrade raged in the streets; it often assumed a hand-to-hand character in which even civilians were reported to have taken part. When the Austrians announced the capture of the ex-capitol on the 9th, they could boast of only 35 guns taken, and roughly 600 mostly wounded prisoners.

Efficient work by the Austrian engineers had completed two pontoon bridges over the Save by October 10th. Now Kövess’ machine could begin to roll. That same day Serb troops reported the use of gas by the enemy at Zabre, but also claimed that they met the attack protected by gas masks, and the latter assertion is almost certainly untrue, unless some primitive measure to deal with the asphyxiates could be considered ‘masks’. The Serbs did, however, enjoy considerably more success in delaying the invasion on their left, where First Army soldiers fought off enemy attacks near many of the battlefields of the previous year’s fighting.

Gallwitz, meanwhile, had achieved all of his initial objectives when Smederovo was captured on the 11th. German troops were now on the south bank of the Danube in four locations, with bridging projects either complete or in the final stages of readiness. The big story of October 11th, however, was not the Austrian or German gains, but the entry of their Bulgarian allies into the campaign. Having massed his First Army around the northwestern town of Belogradcik, General Kliment Boyadshiev loosed one division at Zajecar and the other at Knjazevac, two Serbian centers on the banks of the river Timok, just over the common frontier. Although the Entente nations were not surprised by the Bulgarian gamble, the shock of reality at the thought of a new official enemy was nonetheless considerable. No worthwhile force stood between the German left at Orsova and Boyadshiev’s right on the Timok, and it seemed inevitable that the two should want to close the gap.

Two decent roads lead from Bulgaria’s Struma Valley into that of the Vardar in Macedonia, one from Kjustendil to Kumanovo, the second from Blagojevgrad to Veles; these were the routes chosen by General Todorov for use by his Second Army. If either of the Serbian towns could be captured, the railroad from Salonika to Nish and Belgrade would be cut and the Serbs isolated from foreign assistance, except the trickle coming through Antivari and San Giovanni di Medua. The French and British were well aware of the danger, but London had not yet authorized its troops to move beyond the Greek frontier in the absence of any Bulgarian Declaration of War. Paris, on the other hand, had become increasingly disillusioned over Gallipoli, and tired of its divisions there having to serve under British overall command. Salonika and Serbia offered new possibilities. Even before the enemy invasion had commenced, it had been decided to send a Western Front General to Salonika to take charge of an enlarging French force there which would be entirely independent of the British.

Few persons would have wanted such a command and even fewer would have accepted one. But the Westerners had a perfect candidate in Maurice Sarrail, an Army boss well known as a non-conformist. A one-time supporter of the persecuted Dreyfus at the end of the previous Century, Sarrail was considered a ‘radical’, a Freemason whose politically-incorrect ways were shunned by most of his contemporaries. Sending him to Salonika was to be rid of him in the West, while not seeming to punish or demote him. Had they done so sooner, the Serbian Campaign may have had a somewhat different outcome. As it was, he did not arrive at Salonika until October 12th, by which time Todorov’s Bulgarians were bearing down on the railroad.

Sarrail was not a man to waste any time. Although the Entente had delivered 20,000 troops to Salonika, he could speak only for the French, ordering them to move northward at once. At almost the same moment, the Serbs and Bulgarians declared war on each other, finally confirming the existence of the Quadruple Alliance. Next day Montenegro and Britain declared against Sofia; it took the French yet another day to do likewise (October 16th). The General was not waiting; his advance guard clashed with a small group of Bulgarians from nearby Strumitza at Valandovo on the 15th, driving them off.

Britain’s initial response was more political than military. A blockade of Bulgaria’s Aegean Coast was announced on October 16th, and a new offer forwarded to Athens. London offered to cede Cyprus to Greece in exchange for Greek participation in the Entente. Predictably, the Zaimis Government declined.

Off to the north, the Alliance invasion was rolling on. Mackensen had enough troops on Serbian soil by mid-month to order his armies into full-scale attack. Pozarevac (Passarowitz), site of the Austrian-Ottoman Treaty of 1718, fell on October 14th. Vranje, on the Salonika railroad south of Nish, was captured by Bulgarian Cavalry on the 16th, while Second Army infantry took Kriva Palanka, Katshana and Sultan Tepe on the 17th. First Army also advanced, occupying Zajecar and crossing the lower Timok. Kövess, after heavy battles lasting several days, was at last able to announce the capture of Obrenovac on the 18th, though his men still faced a stubborn defense on the heights east of the Kolubara.

Russia and Italy, though not involved in the ongoing campaign, showed solidarity with their allies by declaring war on Bulgaria on the 19th. French troops moved into Strumitza Station (on the railroad west of the town of that name) that day, but within 24 hours had received the depressing information that the enemy had reached Veles, the first major town to the north. Pushing ahead, they took Robovo two days later, but were attacked by approaching Bulgarian troops. Spirits were temporarily lifted on the 22nd by a Serbian counterattack which recaptured Veles, and by the first northward movement of the British, who had just been authorized to fight the war they were caught up in. Off the Aegean coast, British warships opened fire on the Bulgarian port of Dedeagach, savaging the already flimsy docking facilities there. For awhile, it seemed the Entente was serious about a Balkan Campaign; but any such hopes were soon dashed. Having advanced only as far as Lake Doiran on the Greek/Serb frontier, the British were stopped by fresh Bulgarian forces on the 24th. The French, who had gone as far as Veles on the railroad, were heavily countered, and fearing isolation from his allies, Sarrail decided to go no farther.

In the event, it was a wise decision. Bulgarian troops had secured Kumanovo on the 21st and raced ahead to claim the prize and largest city of all Macedonia, Skopje (Uskub). It was firmly in Todorov’s hands by the morning of the 23rd.

Meanwhile, Kövess was 50 kilometers south by southwest of Belgrade by the time Sabac was taken, an event that seemed only a footnote to the campaign, unlike its importance to earlier ones. Before darkness fell two days later on the 23rd, the Austrians were on the outskirts of Palanka and Petrovac. On the far right, supporting troops advanced into Serbia from the Visegrad area; others stamped out pockets of Serb resistance east of the lower Drina. The Montenegrins did their best to draw off some Austrian strength by engaging their enemies at Foca, Klobuk, and Kalinovik in a series of small but bloody battles. During these actions, an Austrian reconnaissance airplane developed engine problems, and the pilot was forced to land within the Montenegrin lines where he was promptly taken prisoner. His name was Julius Arigi; he would eventually become the second-highest scoring ace of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

During the early-morning hours of October 23rd, the Austrians lost their best river gunboat to a mine in the Save, along with 35 crewmen. This was nothing compared to the loss by the French of the troopship Marquette on the same day, as it was transporting soldiers to Salonika. Submarine U-35 had done the deed; the German Command had also directed U-33 and U-39 to the region to stalk enemy shipping supplying the Greek port.

Neither Gallwitz nor Boyadshiev was able to penetrate deep into Serb territory, at least at first. This was due to the extremely poor roads in their sectors, but also to praiseworthy Serb resistance. The German took Malakrsna on the 18th, only to be swiftly ejected by a Serbian counter-attack. It was only a week after this that 11th Army’s center was able to push beyond Petrovac, itself less than halfway to the Bulgarians at Zajecar. That same day Boyadshiev’s men were only two kilometers past the lower Timok. Towards the Romanian border, however, events moved quickly once the first stubborn dominos were toppled. Once the Serb strong-points of Negotin and Prahovo were forced to surrender—on October 24th—only two more days were needed for the Germans rushing down from Orsova to meet First Army Bulgarians moving north from Prahovo. These allies linked up at Lyubicevac. From that moment, all four Alliance Powers were physically joined. Next day Zajecar passed to the invaders, and the entire Timok line crumbled, its erstwhile defenders desperately seeking salvation across the wooded hills to the southwest. Knjazevac was abandoned on the 27th, along with 1,400 prisoners; the road to Nish was wide open, and Pasic sent out a last desperate appeal for help from his faltering allies. When Pirot fell to the Bulgarians on the 28th, the War Capitol was evacuated of all Serbian Government attachments, these being transferred to Kraljevo, well to the west. But Kraljevo was by no means safe; Kövess had begun a battle on the northern approaches of Kragujevac by the time the Serb officials reached their new ‘capitol’, and it was only two mountain ridges distant. Kragujevac was the site of the country’s only arsenal, and not likely to be surrendered lightly. Nevertheless, so unhinged had the front become at this time that Putnik was obliged to concede that the town could not be held for any length of time, and subsequently gave orders for the demolition of the arsenal. The structure disappeared in a cloud of smoke and dust on October 29th, the Serb rearguards retiring in the direction of Kraljevo. A cautious enemy entered the place the following day.

For the Serbs, the situation was no better in the south. Having brought forward more units near Veles, Todorov’s Second Army launched a strong counterattack upon the French and Serb forces there, forcing them to retreat; the French retired down the Vardar toward Krivolak, the Serbs, their withdrawal to the north cut off by the fall of Skopje, decided to make for Prilep, a Macedonian town to the southwest. The road to their destination led over a narrow and deep defile through the mountains known as the Babuna Pass, and it was here that the local commander Colonel Vasic ordered a stand be made. He was confident that his 5,000 man force could hold the Pass against a much more numerous attack force. North of Skopje the right wing of Second Army was held up in a similar feature, the Kacanik Pass, at the eastern end of the Sar Ridge. The difference was that the Kacanik units were in touch with the main Serb Field Armies, or what was left of them, while Vasic’s men were isolated in the cul-de-sac of southwest Macedonia.

Although the center of gravity of fighting in the Balkans had obviously shifted to Serbia that autumn, men were still suffering and dying on Gallipoli. There had been little activity on the Peninsula since October 8th, when a powerful storm damaged some piers and made life even more miserable for the soldiers. Thereafter came the lull with the dismissal of Hamilton and the wait for his successor. The politicking, of course, continued unabated. On October 20th, Churchill circulated a memorandum in which he claimed that the enemy had sent large quantities of poison gas to the Turkish capitol, and advocated outfitting all British troops employed against Turkey with gas masks. He went on to suggest the Entente use the same weapon at the Strait. To that point only one member of the British Cabinet—Attorney General Carson—had resigned over the Governments’ failure to properly respond to the crisis in Serbia. Such was not the case in France, where the Viviani Government fell over continuing failures on the Western Front and was replaced by one headed by Aristide Briand, a man friendly to a Balkan venture. Soon, the French were insisting on reinforcing the troops at Salonika, at the expense of Gallipoli, if necessary.

The British were not prepared to quarrel with their most important ally. On October 30th, they agreed to “cooperate energetically” with Sarrail’s men at Salonika, though privately most were not happy with this outcome. At the same time, Sir Charles Monro arrived at the Straits. His first communication to London was a request for winter clothing for the troops (October 28th); he then proceeded to inspect the men and positions of his new command, questioning carefully all he was inclined to. Within two days, he had come to a conclusion: Gallipoli should be evacuated, even if the cost in casualties was high. On the 31st, stunned officials in London read his message. After six months of furious fighting, so many men, animals, machines and ships lost, the boss on the spot believed it had all been for nothing. It is perhaps needless to relate that Monro was a Westerner. Even so, the Committee did not immediately accept his conclusions; another opinion was to be considered.

On the ground, the shelling and sniping continued, taking a reduced, but steady toll of lives. One Turk who kept a diary wrote often of discomforts caused by artillery and by lice. On October 18th he noticed enemy ranks “being thinned out and replaced by firepower”. He was on to something; both the French 156th and the British 10th Divisions had departed for Salonika by that time. The next unit to be withdrawn was the 2nd Mounted Division, which left in November for Egypt.

On the waves, the losses also mounted. A transport, the Hythe, was sunk off Gallipoli on October 28th, and France’s submarine Turquoise became a victim in the Dardanelles on November 1st, to Turkish shellfire. Twelve days later it was a British sub, the E-20 that met the same fate in the Sea of Marmora. At Suvla Bay on November 1st, the Destroyer Louis was blown ashore in a fierce gale and wrecked.

Despite the ongoing difficulties, Lord Kitchener expressed dissatisfaction with Monro’s conclusions on November 3rd. He decided to travel to Turkey and have a look for himself. By the 9th, he had reached Mudros; two days later he was surveying the trenches of Gallipoli. He would draw no hasty conclusions, preferring to remain in the theatre for another ten days, filing several reports and witnessing the desultory shelling and worsening weather. On the 17th, docking facilities at both beachheads on Gallipoli were smashed by the heavy, storm-driven sea.

In Serbia, the advent of November brought no relief to soldier or civilian alike. By scraping the absolute bottom of the manpower barrel, and recruiting old men and young boys, the Serbs were able to raise two new divisions for a desperate, last-ditch defense. These were the Bregalnica and Vardar Divisions, and their existence technically increased the nation’s order of battle to fourteen. In truth, anyone who could hold a rifle was considered a ‘soldier’ by now, greatly reducing the quality of Putnik’s remaining forces, which were further hampered by hordes of civilians clogging the roads as they tried to flee the enemy invasion. Those who stayed behind were traumatized by the memories of the atrocity stories of the prior year, and no one wanted to remain in a devastated land completely devoid of all means of subsistence. Still, many had no choice and were overrun by the invaders. An Austrian soldier remembered, years later, an instance of a Serb girl offering sex for a piece of bread; four soldiers responded, and all were infected with a venereal disease. Sometimes, it was the troops who infected the civilians. One Croat in Habsburg service recounted an incident in which he and five others forced themselves on two daughters of an innkeeper, transmitting disease to the helpless, unfortunate women. Looting was also in order; a German wrote of his men relieving a house of its “wine, cheese, chicken, pork and mutton” as they moved through a small town. Mostly, though, civilians suffered from the loss of their shelter and their animals, without each of which they possessed no means to survive the coming winter.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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